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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > October 2017 > Balancing acts

Balancing acts

The Bank of England’s tussles with the Treasury—from the gold standard to the Crash—have shaped the nation’s economy for 300 years, says Robert Skidelsky

Till Time’s Last Sand: A History of the Bank

of England, 1694-2013 by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury, £35)

David Kynaston is a wonderful social historian, with three massive volumes on post-war Britain and many others to his name. He has been a leading practitioner of “history from below,” reflecting the experiences of ordinary people. He has now turned to telling the story of one of Britain’s most powerful and mysterious institutions—the Bank of England, from its founding in 1694 up to 2013.

He faced a number of challenges. Anyone writing an official history is bound to pull his punches. Though far from uncritical, Kynaston has succumbed somewhat to the Old Lady’s mystique. Then there is the question of audience. Kynaston was commissioned to write the book for “the general reader.” This is almost impossible because banking is highly specialised. Explaining all the technical terms would have slowed down the narrative, but not explaining them often leaves the general reader floundering. Kynaston is a masterly storyteller and has made the material as accessible as it could possibly be to the non-specialist. Still, a glossary of technical terms would have been helpful.

While the history of the Bank as an institution plays to the author’s strengths as a social historian, the task also demands an ability to relate institutional practice to debates in monetary theory, which Kynaston does not command. He compensates effectively by allowing bankers and finance ministers to explain in their own words what they thought they were doing. But what is missing is an independent judgment on the unfolding events. “There was much to ponder” is not enough.

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In Prospect’s October issue: Andrew Adonis, Steve Richards, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams look at the idea that leadership is the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. Adonis leads the cover package arguing exactly that point and outlining his ratings of the leaders who have competed every election in the UK and the United States since 1944—Richards offers a rebuttal. Hinsliff, Sylvester and Williams profile three potential leaders in waiting—Amber Rudd, Jo Swinson and Angela Rayner. Elsewhere in the issue we map out the potential road the UK might travel down to stay in the European Union and explore the relationship between UN Secretary General António Guterres and Donald Trump as the two prepare to meet at the UN. Also in this issue: Philip Collins on the similarities between Britain’s Brexiteers and the Gaullists of yesteryear, John Bercow explains how parliament could function better and our “View from” comes from Nairobi, where the recent election result has been annulled.
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